Maybe you’ve had this sandwich: A thick layer of garlicky chickpeas, smooshed to the consistency of mashed potatoes cementing cucumbers, sprouts, tomatoes and havarti cheese between two slices of wheaty, seedy bread, avocado optional. When I was in college in the 1990s it was my lunchtime go-to. The hummus functioned as the main event and the primary condiment at the same time, providing a meat-free source of protein that wasn’t a spongy slab of marinated tofu. The whole thing was vegetarian heaven to my twenty-year-old palate.
That particular flavor combination came flooding back to me recently while I was pureeing chickpeas for the hummus recipe from Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, the cookbook by Michael Solomonov. As a chef, he’s built an empire in Philadelphia based on hummus (his wood-fired pita and superlative lamb shoulder have helped, too), that is a world away from the chunky sandwich filling I was eating back in college.
The market for hummus as a dip has exploded in both the US and the UK over the past decade, but the bland tubs of lemony chickpea slurry that you find in the grocery store are almost as different from what Solomonov is slinging as the hippie concoction I used to love so much. When Omri Casspi became the first Israeli to play for the NBA back in 2009, he told The New York Times that what he missed most about Israel was the hummus, and despite an estimated $800 million in yearly sales of Sabra worldwide, here in the US we’re just starting to understand the beauty of creamy, tahini-rich hummus.
How did we get it so wrong for so long?
Simple doesn’t mean easy
First, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that as as with many things that seem simple, hummus is actually very difficult to get just right.
Although the American market has been operating from a different playbook, there are only a few ingredients in real hummus: chickpeas, tahini and salt are the universals, lemon juice and olive oil are also usually in the mix or poured on top, and many cooks also include garlic in some form. Chickpeas and tahini—toasted sesame paste—are the stars here. We’ve become accustomed to calling dips made from white beans, edamame or fava beans, flavored with roasted red peppers, carrots, basil, even chocolate “hummus,” but this is in no way reflective of how it was traditionally made or consumed.
Hummus is eaten in a variety of ways around the Middle East, most commonly served in a shallow bowl with toppings like olive oil, cooked whole chickpeas, pine nuts or ground lamb and then swiped up with pita. Most Middle Eastern cooks will allow for a certain sense of adventure with the toppings, but the hummus itself must be made with chickpeas and tahini.
My local co-op sells a jarred hummus made with cranberry beans and smoked maple syrup. Cranberry beans are underrated, for sure, but they’re going to stay that way if the best way we can think to use them is as a stand in for chickpeas. It’s not just the off-label bean usage that is problematic, it’s the idea of putting hummus in a jar in the first place.
“Canned hummus, that’s really wet and grainy with that intense lemon, citric acid flavor, I still have that taste memory in my mind,” says Adeena Sussman, a cookbook author who grew up in California and now spends most of her time in Tel Aviv. “It has a sentimental place in my heart, though it’s not by any means what hummus is supposed to be.”
In Lebanon, says Kamal Mouzawak, a Lebanese chef and social entrepreneur who uses food to foster cross-cultural connections, hummus is rarely made at home, and is eaten as a street food—a filling snack picked up in the souk, or as part of a mezze in a restaurant. “Usually we say that how to know a good restaurant, you taste only one thing, the hummus,” he told Quartzy in a phone call. “If it’s good, the restaurant is good.”
“It is not a dip, as portrayed the United States,” says Mouzawak. ”Hummus is very simple to make; still, it’s very difficult to do a good one.”
I spoke to more than a few accomplished cooks with strong opinions for this story and each had a slightly different way they personally prepare and eat hummus. Joan Nathan, cookbook author and Jewish food expert, likes to add preserved lemons to hers. Solomonov prepares a tahini sauce by infusing lemon juice with garlic, then combining that with tahini, salt and cumin—and then adds the sauce to pureed chickpeas. Sussman includes garlic cloves in with the chickpeas and tahini, and shared her recipe with us, at the end of this story.
Amid the conflicting reports concerning garlic, tahini preparation, stances on cumin and olive oil, two universal hummus truths did emerge: good hummus is made from good ingredients, and good hummus is fresh. Very fresh.
Joan Nathan spent the early 1970s living in Israel, and when she came back to the US she had a hard time finding the ingredients to make her own hummus. “I used what was available to me. It was Joyva tahina or Sahadis and canned chickpeas,” she wrote in an email. “It was rare you could find dried chickpeas.” When she and her husband-to-be, whom she had met in Israel, decided to serve hummus as an appetizer at their wedding, she had to give the caterer a recipe, because he had never heard of it before.
“The quality revolution in hummus is tied inexorably to a quality revolution in tahini,” says Sussman.
Even now, the orange and brown can of Joyva is likely to be the only tahini on the shelf in many US supermarkets, and may be the only tahini many Americans have ever known. The first time I tried my hand at homemade hummus I wondered why tahini was even necessary at all after prying off the lid—dipping my finger through the scrim of oil that had accumulated on top of what turned out to be a very hard, very bitter sesame paste. Thanks to the increased interest in Middle Eastern cuisine, toasty rich tahini is showing up in more and more stores, making delicious hummus possible in your own home.
And homemade hummus is really the best option if you’re going to stick with the guiding principle that is must be eaten fresh. In Israel, and in many other places where hummus is a traditional snack, hummus shops make one batch in the morning and then close when they’re sold out.
When asked about my 90s hummus sandwich, Solomonov—who grew up in Pittsburgh, and has also lived in Israel for long stretches—knew exactly what I was talking about. “It would be like a turkey burger, alfalfa sprouts and the coldest, garlickiest, grossest sort of hummus,” he said, suggesting that until recently, people who wanted to make authentic hummus just would not have had enough demand to do it the right way and serve it fresh. “Any immigrant food, the first waves of it, are Americanized.”
But really, why so much garlic?
The problems with grocery store hummus are self evident. Each plastic tub violates a primary hummus directive—freshness. Lemon juice quickly turns from something bright and delicious to something oxidized and canned tasting. Processing, refrigeration and shelf-life seriously degrade hummus, and that’s even if you’re using high quality ingredients.
But what about my health food store sandwich, where did that thick, garlicky idea of hummus come from?
For a long time, recreating ethnic food in the US was like a culinary game of telephone. People who traveled and tasted delicious new flavors usually had limited resources for ingredients and recipes back home. Health food store cuisine, in specific, was more interested in forging a new kind of vegetarian menu and ethos—and less insistent in the faithful recreations of dishes arriving from abroad.
The boomer-hippie-founded food co-op where I ate all those sandwiches, for instance, wasn’t trying to be a Mediterranean lunch counter or Japanese restaurant either, even though they also sold tamari-marinated tofu by the pound. The common thread here is not a cuisine or tradition, it’s that everything is vegetarian, and defined against an earlier, blander way of vegetarian cooking.
Hippies who traveled came back with exotic ingredients they used as building blocks for flavor to transform vegetarian food into something new, says Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food, How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. “I talked to one woman who worked in a collective vegetarian cafe in Minneapolis who joked that she was going to name her two children tahini and tamari because she cooked with them so much,” Kauffman told me over the phone.
“The creative embrace of flavors from Asia and Europe and South America and Africa by the Baby Boom generation…was a result of travel and also an awareness of the world that was so new compared to their parents, Kauffman says. “But the other factor was this sort of desperate need for innovation to make vegetarian food taste better.” In an effort to get beyond heavy bean loaves and underseasoned grains, vegetarian cooks in the 1970s and 1980s did whatever they could with the ingredients they had access to. For hummus, that meant chunky garlicky hummus made from canned —and tahini, when it was available— was more likely to show up in a salad dressing than in a bowl to be paired with pita.
But that’s all long gone. Today, we’re obsessed with culinary authenticity and the constant search for new and delicious dishes and ingredients. Solomonov, for instance, told me about friends who are “Southeastern Pennsylvania farmer hippies that now distribute tahina that was processed in Nazareth from sesame seeds from Ethiopia.”
Still, even though it’s sort an inherently sad way of enjoying food, we shouldn’t feel too badly about the American penchant for eating baby carrots dragged through cold grocery store hummus over the kitchen sink. “Americans are accustomed to a dip like a guacamole or a salsa already,” says Mouzawak. “The similarity of already existing patterns makes it easier to introduce exotic products like hummus. Food is the best ambassador always.”
Comparing the way language evolves to the way food evolves over time, Mouzawak suggested that it was natural both to appreciate hummus as it has been traditionally enjoyed, and to change it to local tastes, too. “Everything which travels is going to be altered,” says Mouzawak. “I’d rather have the hummus with variation and beetroot and I don’t know what than have the totally orthodox hummus that cannot change…nothing doesn’t change so long as it’s something that is alive.”
Adeena Sussman’s Hummus
Makes about 3 cups
1 ¼ cups dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 whole peeled garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup pure tahini paste
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (please don’t use bottled!)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
olive oil and paprika for serving
Cover the chickpeas with cold water, cover with a kitchen towel, and soak them for at least 8 hours and up to 16.
Drain the chickpeas, transfer them to a saucepan, cover them with 3 inches of water, add the baking soda, bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook them until they are verrrrry verrry soft; this could take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the types of chickpeas you are using, the altitude at which you’re cooking, and the mood of the hummus spirits on any given day. While the chickpeas are cooking, skim off any major foam and, if you’ve got the time and the patience, use a slotted spoon to remove and discard any skins that float to the top of the water.
Also while the chickpeas are cooking, measure out all of other ingredients because speed is of the essence.
Drain the chickpeas, reserving ½ cup of the cooking water. Transfer 2 cups of the chickpeas and garlic cloves to a food processor, and process until they start to get really smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the tahini, lemon juice, and salt and process until smooth, another 1-2 minutes. Season with more salt to taste. Spread the hummus on a round plate, top with the remaining chickpeas, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with paprika. Serve while still warm if you want to be a total boss.